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Horsemeat Cake or Faecal Bacteria in Meatballs?

CARMEN LÓPEZ VALIENTE*. 17/04/2013 Ikea's food controversy in the media
VALENCIA. It is not unusual finding science news articles in newspapers with provocative and sometimes even sensationalistic headlines. But, do these headlines match reality? Is the information confirmed or is it merely used to attract the readers' attention? Unfortunately, the news often shows a lack of rigour. Facts, processes and conclusions may vary depending on the medium chosen. Information is mixed, confusing and often contradictory.

The coverage of the very recent Ikea scandal is a good example that illustrates this. Two batches of a cake made and sold by the Swedish supplier were found to be contaminated by bacteria, according Chinese customs controls. Only reading Spanish newspapers, we can find many different microorganisms involved in the scandal, figures of destroyed products vary in thousands of kilograms, etc. Altogether, if you try to get an overview of the situation using different sources you end up having no clue of what is going on.

Let's make a review of the facts. In December 2012, the Chinese government detected two batches of cakes contaminated by coliform bacteria. These cakes were to be served in all Ikeas around the world.

Spanish newspapers started writing about it on March 5, 2013, almost four months after it was detected, following the news regarding the meatballs the company serves in its restaurants. These meatballs -the restaurant's star product- included horsemeat of dubious origin and apparently had not been labelled as such. Therefore, there was a double fraud: wrong labelling and difficult product traceability.

Headlines do not help the readers to form an opinion regarding actual facts. Actually, there are a few journalists whose writing is so misleading that should be punishable by law.

The most important Spanish newspapers included these headlines (March 5, 2013):

El País: «Ikea withdraws desserts in 23 countries due to risk of faecal contamination ».

El Periódico: «China destroys two tons of Ikea's chocolate cake containing faecal bacteria».

La Vanguardia: «Ikea withdraws chocolate cakes in 23 countries after detecting faecal bacteria».

El Mundo:  «Ikea withdraws almond cake contaminated with faecal bacteria».

Surfing the Net one can find completely nonsensical headlines. For example, Noudiari.es 24 horas de información. Eivissa y Formentera (covering for the islands of Ibiza and Formentera) published on March 24: «Ikea withdraws a cake containing faeces», although in the main text they talk about «coliform bacteria common in human faeces». This headline leads you to think something quite different. Terra.es published «Faecal matter found in a batch of Ikea cakes» (March 5, 2013). «Faecal matter» is only a synonym of «excrements».

Full text available at Mètode's webiste.


Carmen López Valiente. PhD in Biological Sciences and teacher at IES Ausiàs March (Manises, Valencia)
Photo: Jemimus (Flickr)


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